Obama and Israel

Posted: July 7, 2009 in Middle East
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From The Wall Street Journal: OPINION by JEFF ROBBINS
JULY 6, 2009

Obama and Israel

In his new book, “One State, Two States: Resolving The Israel/Palestine Conflict,” historian Benny Morris recounts the lugubrious history of Palestinian refusal to actually accept Israel as a Jewish state in the heart of the uniformly Muslim Middle East. Morris examines the widespread rejection by Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general of a two-state solution that, he points out, has been “a constant refrain of Palestinian leaders … throughout the history of the Palestinian national movement,” up to and including the present.

The refusal of Palestinian politicians, academics and clerics to stipulate that they accept a permanent Jewish state existing next to a Palestinian state is, of course, at once a dirty little secret and the 800 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to the debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

For over 80 years, as Morris notes, Palestinians have “persuasively demonstrated” that they do not want any Jewish state in the region, regardless of the boundaries, and regardless of the settlement policy pursued by this Israeli government or that one. The Palestinian rejection of any Jewish state has not merely been the recurring theme of the conflict, but the dominant one. Thus, in the 1930s, the Palestinians rejected a proposed two-state solution that would have created a Jewish state in less than 20 percent of Palestine. In the 1940s, the Palestinians rejected the United Nations partition plan which created a Jewish state on less than half of the arable land in Palestine. From 1948 to 1967, when Israel had no presence in Gaza, the West Bank or East Jerusalem, the Arabs created no Palestinian state. After the 1967 war, when Israel accepted the land-for-peace formulation in UN Resolution 242, the Arab world, including the Palestinians, rejected it. In 2000, when Israel supported a plan put forth by President Clinton that would have created an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem comprising all of Gaza and virtually all of the West Bank, the Palestinians rejected this too, instead commencing a campaign of bombings that left 1,100 Israelis dead and, not incidentally, 4,000 Palestinians dead as well.

And in 2006, when Israel unilaterally and forcibly removed thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip, abandoning any Jewish presence there, Palestinians responded by rocketing Israeli civilian centers, eventually leaving Israel with the unenviable choice between abandoning ever greater numbers of its civilians to daily Palestinian rocket attacks, on one hand, or entering Gaza to stop those attacks, with the inevitable harm done to civilians there, on the other. For its part, the Hamas leadership, which had assassinated many of its opponents and achieved a military takeover of Gaza, was more than content to trade hundreds of Palestinian lives in Gaza for the international criticism of Israel which Israel’s efforts to protect its civilians from these rocket attacks would reliably trigger.

Recently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told The Washington Post that the Palestinians had once again rejected a two-state solution. Former Prime Minister Olmert, Abbas told the Post, had recently offered an independent Palestinian state comprising all of Gaza, a capital in East Jerusalem and 97 percent of the West Bank – – and Abbas had flatly rejected this as well. “The gaps,” Abbas said, without elaboration, “were too wide.”

In the meantime, Abbas refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, telling the Post that he preferred to let the passage of time take its course, confident that American and international pressure on Israel would further weaken Israel’s position. “Until then,” Abbas said, “in the West Bank we have a good reality…the people are living a good life.” And just last week, despite yet more stories in the western media that Hamas was at last “moderating” its position on Israel, Hamas informed former President Carter, whose credulousness on the conflict is a source of some wonderment, that as it had previously made clear, it would never recognize Israel’s right to exist under any circumstances.

The problem with these facts is that they get in the way of an increasingly fashionable orthodoxy: that it is Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are the obstacle to peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Despite the record recounted so soberingly by Morris, this is a line that is advanced by Palestinian supporters in the West with great vigor, even as Palestinians have been proclaiming somewhat indiscreetly that, actually, the trouble with Israel has nothing to do with settlements and everything to do with its existence, which, three generations after Israel’s founding, remains unacceptable.

Morris rather elegantly characterizes the bobbing and weaving of Palestinian spokespeople who profess moderation while continuing to reject Israel’s right to exist as “elisions, disingenuousness and vagueness.” It might be described less gently as mendacity. Nevertheless, the line that it is Israeli settlements that are the problem, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reluctance to remove them that is the fundamental impediment to peace, has attained a certain gospel-like adherence in certain quarters and, increasingly, among Democrats. As Dennis Ross and David Makovsky write with understatement in their own new book, “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” “those on the left…tend to dismiss ideological opposition to Israel’s existence.”

For Democrats who voted for Barack Obama, but who regard the encirclement of Israel by well-armed fanatics pledged to its destruction with some alarm, the President’s treatment of Prime Minister Netanyahu on the occasion of their first meeting has provoked a certain unease. The Obama Administration’s pointed and singular focus on Israeli settlements while downplaying the underlying problem of Palestinian rejectionism, the extensive leaking aimed at letting the world know what little regard the Administration has for Israel’s newly-elected leader, and Vice President Biden’s ostentatious scolding of Israel’s supporters at a recent AIPAC conference, can all be regarded as part of a master plan, intended to bring the Arab world into the peace process by demonstrating that American policy toward Israel has changed. Under this theory, Obama’s stiff-arming of Israel might be viewed as the diplomatic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, intended to improve the desperate situation of President Abbas and empower Abbas and other relative moderates to persuade the Arab masses to finally accept a Jewish state.

The risk, of course, is that rather than enhancing the stature of moderates and reducing the influence of those who openly pronounce that what they really seek is the disappearance of Israel, the Obama Administration’s gambit will have the opposite effect. The record of Palestinians professing in the West to accept a two-state solution while assuring their own people that they refuse to accept any such solution is incontrovertible, and does not appear to have evolved to any meaningful degree, as Morris points out.

The Administration’s purposeful distancing of itself from Israel is likely to empower those who have always believed, and who continue to believe, that in the fullness of time, American support for Israel can be degraded, and with it Israel’s ability to survive. Those in the Arab world who have counseled that that is the case—and there are many of them—will take the Administration’s insistence that it wishes to be “an honest broker” as evidence that, at long last, American support for Israel has begun to erode, and that it is only a matter of time before it is no longer necessary for them to pretend that it is a two-state solution in which they are interested. If this proves to be the case, the Obama Administration, while intending to be helpful, will have inadvertently dealt whatever prospects exist for Middle East peace a serious blow.

Mr. Robbins served as a United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva during the Clinton Administration.

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